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Interview: The Airborne Toxic Event

jason stives interviews the white-hot rock band …

When you hear the name The Airborne Toxic Event, perception would leave you to believe it’s the name of a trashy ’80s metal band. In reality, it’s the name of a very eclectic indie rock quintet from Los Angeles, who don’t care for labels, but know it’s part of being a band in the 21st century. Thanks in part to their recent radio hit “Changing,” ATE has slowly been gaining steam on the music scene thanks to their infectious lyrical content and mix of indie, punk, and mainstream rock hooks.

Pop-Break’s Jason Stives had a chance to have a chat with their bassist, Noah Harmon, a very cool guy and a product of the laid back L.A. lifestyle. After chit-chatting for a few minutes about the recent release of their sophomore album, All At Once, Noah spoke candidly and with satisfaction about being a band on the rise, and the ever-turning mantra of most rock bands, WRT (write, record, tour).

Pop-Break: Much like your first album, this time around, you are fighting against critical consensus. Some have been harsh; most, thankfully, have been positive at about All At Once. When you set out in support of a new album, do you think about those critical perceptions or is it all about how your audience perceives it and how you want it to get across?

Noah Harmon: That comes with the territory. It’s like Rolling Stone never gave Led Zeppelin a good review, and not that I’m comparing us to them, but it’s all with the perspective. You take the negative reviews with a grain of salt and you rely on what matters which are the fans who buy our albums and come to our shows. Yeah, positive reviews are always great, but at the end of the day, you are still living your life and putting on good shows, and that’s what it really comes down to.

Airborne Toxic Event's Noah Harmon

I have friends who are music journalists, and they are good people and they are honest people. If 100 journalists all had the same review, it wouldn’t be much to say. So it’s okay that there are some negative reviews and some positive reviews. What matters is what our fans think.

PB: Having not seen you guys live yet and just going on some of the more classical-based tracks that I assume Anna was responsible for, how does your live audience take to tracks like that? Is there a specific way to ease the crowd into new songs like that?

NH: For us, it’s starting to be more typical. We spend a staggering amount of time on the road — like, we have played 150 shows so far this year. Before this record, we had played maybe all of one song live, and this before we recorded the album so our audience, in particular the core audience, had a sense of where we were going already. A lot of core fans they support whatever we do. I feel like for what comes out, it’s the old adage: You have your whole life to write your first album.

PB: You guys have that stigma following you of the sophomore slump for a second record, which isn’t always easy to shake.

NH: We have great support and we have been fortunate. I’m not saying it will stay this way, God knows what comes tomorrow [laughs] — and that’s how any band should look at it.

PB: In talking about the new album, there seems to be an increase in the use of keyboards and feels somewhat different than your first. I don’t want to say it’s more mainstream, but now “Changing” is on the radio and everything. What direction did you guys set out on when you started recording this album?

NH: Mikel [Jollett] writes an amazing amount of songs and has a wealth of stuff already written. He is always somewhere writing something — hell, I’m not even sure where he is today [laughs]. He could be in a hotel room writing something. That’s just him — he loves to write. Off of that, there is a basic frame work that we go. In most cases, it’s him writing by himself and then he comes in and shows it to us and we take it from there coming up with a basic framework for the song that we will tinker with over time.

It helps with how we end up recording each album. There was definitely a difference in the recording process, but in a good way. We recorded the first album at a friend’s house, which was easy to work with. Then this one we did with David Sardy, who has done albums for Oasis, and I believe all the LCD Soundsystem records. Working with that kind of person brings something to the table, and it’s probably the most obvious difference from the first record. I mean, we go in and of course we want to write good songs but you can’t go in being like, “Oh, well this one will be like Radiohead.” If you start doing that, you might as well be writing for Katy Perry [laughs]. Whatever kind of music you are doing, it has to be something you like.

PB: I know Mikel [Jollett] writes the songs, but I assume as a band you all have your input. What input do you have in the writing of the albums?

NH: Well, I like to do instrumental stuff, which I do on the computer. I’ll lay down all basic instrumental tracks and some ideas I really like. Maybe some keyboard parts and guitar parts. In some cases, we lay down some parts and then we may just strip down the whole track and rework it. Sometimes we will just bring lyrics and a couple guitar chords and just start the basic arrangement from there. That’s the fun of the recording process — there is no precise way to handle it and we choose to do it several ways.

PB: A lot of reviews make note of the thematic elements of the album and what your sound is trying to be. My favorite review was from the L.A. Times, which said that it sounded like you were trying to get away from your indie cred and were aiming for arenas and Grammy nominations. It sounded so strange. How do you perceive your sound?

NH: Well if there was a way to make that arena sound, I would love to do that [laughs]. But labels are labels. It’s flattering to get compared to all these bands, like everyone loves The Clash. If you get compared to The Clash that’s really awesome, but you’re not The Clash. If you are The Clash, you encompass a stellar career with great albums, great singles — you are the godfathers of punk. If you are us, you are a band on their sophomore release, so you’re not The Clash, no matter how flattering it is to here. So when people put a definition to our sound, that’s great because that is what they hear. People have told us we sound like Incubus or Green Day, which is weird, but you can get compared to U2 and Arcade Fire and you think, “That’s great!” But at the end of the day, you aren’t those bands, which is fine.

PB: I know this maybe more of a question for Mikel, but on the first album, you had mostly love songs. I believe I read a quote from Mikel saying, “The first album was all love songs, and the new album is only three.” Was this intentional, or is it more a less a factor of what’s going on in the band at the time?

NH: Yeah, that’s pretty accurate. His stuff is all in direct reference to something, like there is a short story called “Girls In Their Summer Clothes,” and we have a song called “Girls.” So that is very much a direct reference to what he was going through at the time and what we were in some way going through all the time. Like stuff we were feeling while on a tour in Europe, waking up on cold mornings on a bus. The first record was essentially about two breakups where as the second record had no breakups [laughs].

PB: In a manner of relating to the thematic sound, the subjects of many of the songs on the new album I notice cover more than just love and lost, which was most of the first album. I notice hints of songs about peace and travesty. As a band, when do you guys decide upon a deeper subject than romance and heartbreak is needed. Do you feel a need to write songs about world issues?

NH: We are fortunate enough that Mikel has never approached us with something where we have said, “Yeah, that’s a lame topic.” He is so 100 percent genuine in his lyrics and so serious. Maybe like we will play a song ten times live and in the process of the song evolving change a word or a line, and he will go in and do that. We have done that while recording, too. It doesn’t really come up like that on the subject matter thankfully.

Noah Harmon with violinist Anna Bullbrook at The Voodoo Experience in New Orleans

PB: At this point, the album has been out for a few months. You have and will be touring for the rest of the year and into next year. What timetable do you guys normally give yourselves before you start talking about the next album?

NH: Well, I hope we are still touring next year [laughs], hopefully we will have gigs. We are already trying out new stuff on the road, just basic structures of possible songs, so we are already working that into our schedule. There’s basic fragments that we work on in hotel rooms or at sound checks. A lot of bands have rehearsal lockouts, but we haven’t rehearsed in four years. We do songs in soundchecks and that’s where their genesis begins in the early stages. So is there a timetable for the next album? Not yet, but we are always thinking about new music like I said.

PB: I know album sales don’t really matter in this day and age, so it’s the responsibility of bands to tour a lot. Where does the balancing act come in between the notion of the need to tour and just the pure enjoyment of playing to a live audience, which I would think outweighs the need to tour. Does it get frustrating to be like, “Oh great, another leg of the tour.”

NH: It can be exhausting and it does get to that point. However, it’s one of those things where it’s hard for people to understand unless you have lived that life. It’s a daily grind really. You wake up, you play for a radio station, go to soundcheck, play a gig, you get on the bus and sleep and you wake up to start the day over in a new place. It’s really tiresome, so that traveling part is a pain in the ass, but playing a show is NEVER a pain in the ass. Seeing an audience give back as much as you give them is great. and when everyone is going crazy by the end of the show, it’s so gratifying and makes up for all that traveling.

PB: Have you guys started developing favorite spots to play — when you know they are coming around, you get really excited about?

NH: The Trocadero in Philly is a great venue. I love the Fillmore in San Francisco because it is such a historic venue. The Bowery Ballroom and Webster Hall in New York are great venues, too. So yeah, there are a lot of places to look forward to each time. The Blackpool Empire in London is great, too. This all leads back to being exhausted on the road basically because one minute you are in New York and you have friends and family there, but then it’s off to somewhere else. Like you come around so many times, you start knowing the monitor girl at the Troc or the bartender at the vodka bar around the corner from the venue. Like I said, it comes with the territory, but it’s really how to do it, and it can be a lot of fun.


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